Colorado’s San Luis Valley has been continuously served by rail since 1877, when the Rio Grande built its narrow-gauge (NG) line over La Veta Pass. Since then, many changes have taken place, with the entry of standard-gauge rail in 1899, the gradual withering of NG branches, the divestment of the NG line west of Antonito in 1969, and finally the merger of the Rio Grande with the Southern Pacific in 1988. Between that time and 1996, SPL operated the remaining track in the valley, which was laid out in a large Y-shape One arm went to Antonito and the Perlite and scoria operations; the other arm to Monte Vista to interchange with the San Luis Central, and extending as far as South Fork. The trunk line ran east from Alamosa over La Veta Pass and
ultimately to Pueblo.
In 1996, Union Pacific acquired Southern Pacific Lines. Never happy with the light traffic native to the Alamosa Sub, UP sought for a way to spin off the operation. In early 2003, they finally found a buyer in the form of RailAmerica, a shortline operator with a proven “track” record. The transfer was delayed several times due to environmental issues, i.e. disputes over whose responsibility it was to clean up some old hazardous materials, but the transfer was finally effected June 28, 2003.
Meanwhile, when the sale was being rumored, I decided it was now or never to get a last look at Rio Grande power in the valley. UP had been using a mix of locomotives that included several Rio Grande GP40-2s. Accordingly, at 2:45 AM on March 7th, my daughter and I piled into the car and left Farmington for Alamosa, to record the day’s action on film for posterity.
The usual daily operation was something like this: sometime after midnight, the inbound train would leave Pueblo, typically arriving in Alamosa around 6:00 AM. The local crews would take over and make up trains for Antonito and/or Monte Vista, using units from the road power consist. After the runs out and back, the outbound train would be made up, the road power reassembled, and the train would depart in late afternoon.
Our plan was to be in Alamosa when the inbound train arrived. We showed up in town around dawn, but there was no sign of the train. We poked around the yard for a little while as the sun came up, waiting for something to happen.
After waiting for a while, I decided to gamble that the train hadn’t already arrived and been split up for the twin locals, and we headed east to intercept it. Nothing but empty tracks. East of Fort Garland, we took Trinchera Ranch road to get on the south side of the tracks (better light for photos). Still nothing. Following the gravel roads to the east, we ended up by Mortimer, a railroad location that exists only on maps now.
Still nothing. Where was the train? It was nearly 10:00. After wandering around in the snow for a while, we decided to head further up the pass for one last look before we gave up. Backtracking to the highway, we headed east on US 160 again. Just as we got to where the railroad diverges from the highway at the Forbes Park entrance, lo and behold, headlights! The inbound train was creeping down the pass at 10 mph. Time to get to work.
Given the train’s slow speed, we figured to have plenty of time to get around to the south. We went back to Trinchera Road and headed east on the gravel roads.
We leapfrogged the train back to Alamosa, stopping for video at the town of Blanca, and beat it back to East Yard in plenty of time. Here we met up with Ken, a fellow railfan who’d come down from Buena Vista.
We followed the 3-unit consist back to East Yard, expecting to see some switching. They cut off one covered hopper and pulled west… and kept going! They even had the FRED on the coupler. Now, that’s a short train! The plan was to follow the Antonito local, and since it had the Grande power, we prepared to head south (this meant, going to McDonald’s for chow first).
The drive to Antonito takes less than a half-hour, but the train was going much slower than us so there was really no hurry. We passed it before La Jara, and headed on down to the bridge over the Conejos River on the north edge of Antonito. Ken was there again, and we scrounged around for old boxcar door seals in the ballast while we waited. They were everywhere– little rusty strips of metal with numbers stamped in them.
The perlite and scoria operations are just beyond the south edge of town. Scoria is loaded on a siding north of the perlite plant, by a simple mobile conveyor loader. Scoria, by the way, is simply volcanic rock– used for decorative landscaping, among other things. Perlite is a silicous mineral used in construction, horticultural, and industrial applications (see here for more information).
We headed back north, stopping in La Jara to shoot a roll-by. The light, again, was terrible, although that didn’t stop me from burning a roll of film. It seemed we had to wait forever for the train to arrive, and probably looked a little foolish, kicking around the back lots along the tracks downtown. On the other hand, I suspect the locals are used to it by now…
|Here the train makes its appearance. It sure was nice to see those two Grandes on the point!|
|Now passing us, the train approaches the town hall (ex-depot, from the look of it), just visible in front of No. 3121.|
That was pretty much it for the day. We passed the train again on the way north, but didn’t stop anymore. It had been a long, exhausting day, and we still had a four-hour drive ahead of us. Back in Alamosa we saw the other two SSW units returning from Monte Vista, but weren’t in a position to photograph them. And this was the last I saw of the D&RGW / SP / UP tenure in the San Luis Valley.
(c) 2003, 2021, James R. Griffin. All rights reserved.